Super Bowl LVII security: More than just ‘guards, guns and gates’

Feb. 10, 2023
Many security professionals will agree that threats facing major events like the Super Bowl – which has drawn a Special Event Assessment Rating-1 from the federal government every year since 2002 – have grown and changed.

It’s no secret to most that putting together a comprehensive security program for the Super Bowl is an immensely complicated task for dozens of federal, state and local law enforcement stakeholders, the National Football League and private security companies that are charged with keeping NFL players, staff and fans safe. 

This mission extends from the game itself to the ever-growing footprint of pre-parties, concerts and other events. The FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) say they haven’t been tracking any “specific, credible” threats yet against the Super Bowl LVII, which kicks off Sunday at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. 

But the number of threats security experts must account for has never been greater, some experts will argue. The picture of a Chinese surveillance balloon hovering over the U.S. for days before being shot down will be fresh on the minds of fans. 

The country has also seen numerous mass shootings recently, and attacks have been conducted on utility infrastructure in several states. 

When the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles collided on the gridiron it will be the fourth time Arizona has hosted a Super Bowl. Adding to the pressure this year is the PGA Tour’s WM Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Ariz. happening this weekend, which will challenge security resources even further. 

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, along with NFL senior vice president and chief security officer Cathy Lanier – as well as representatives from the FBI, Arizona Department of Public Safety and Phoenix Police Department – fielded a number of questions from the media this week about the safety of the air space, human trafficking, cybercrime and preserving the safety of events at multiple sites. 

Lanier says the security world has, no doubt, seen major changes and it takes a constant focus on coordination and logistics to meet modern challenges. She noted the NFL merged its cybersecurity and physical security assets several year ago to take a wholistic approach. 

“When we look at security around events now it is not just physical security. It’s not just guards, gates and guns like it used to be. We look at threats from a 360-degree perspective. So, it’s the air, the water and the cyber environment,” Lanier says. “It’s just the nature of security these days.” 

Threats Evolving

Many security professionals will agree that threats facing major events like the Super Bowl – which has drawn a Special Event Assessment Rating-1 from the federal government every year since 2002 – have grown and changed.  

Jack Phillips, who founded Chicago-based Phillips Security Consulting in 2009, knows what challenges security officials have with the Super Bowl through conversations he participated in while a member of the Stadium Managers Association. Phillips has served as a security representative for the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Browns and is a former federal agent for the Treasury Department and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 

The threat has shifted, Phillips believes, from state-sponsored terror groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas or Al-Qaeda to domestic threats coming from the U.S.

“During my tenure at the Cleveland Browns it was literally about Al-Qaeda or ISIS or a lone wolf and people using car bombs, truck bombs, as well as managing the flow of people,” says Phillips, who has served as terrorism response team senior officer during his career. 

“Their risks are now about domestic terrorism, which is way harder to figure out because it's going to look like you and me. It could be somebody who’s unhappy with the election or is listening to Q-Anon. And as you know, our country is highly armed. And you can change the assault weapons laws and ban them and it’s still not going to change the fact we’re highly armed.” 

Citing the example of purported security failures during the U.S. Capitol riots, Phillips questions if bad actors are getting into policing or security positions so they can act on their beliefs. “Finding those people is harder thing because you can't really vet people that are already vetted. So it's much more complicated today,” he says. 

Tailored Approach

For the NFL, law enforcement, stadium management and other high-level security stakeholders , the grind of planning for the Super Bowl starts as much as 18 months before the game kicks off. 

Typically a high-level team of officials from the next year’s Super Bowl site visits the site for the current game to get a better understanding of how security operations are put together and how they mesh with the NFL’s policies and procedures. 

Tabletop exercises are done with stakeholders to test security plans and account for nearly every conceivable scenario. Several months into the planning, private security firms are carefully selected by the NFL and brought into the mix once they’ve passed background checks. 

Even though it’s the fourth time Arizona has hosted a Super Bowl, Lanier says the security environment for the event is different every year. 

“We don’t just walk in with a template and fill that template. We sit with our all our partners we look at the threats that are out there,” Lanier says. “Then we use the most sophisticated security technology possible to provide a safe and welcoming environment for people. 

“Coordinating so many different venues and jurisdictions is where a lot of our focus is, but I think by the time we get to this 10-day window which is the Super Bowl period, we are well in sync. The law enforcement, fire and EMS communities here have tremendous mutual aid agreements. They work together all the time and they share resources. I think this has been one of the best-coordinated regions that we've worked in.” 

Massive Response

At this year’s Super Bowl, more than 40 law enforcement agencies are participating in security operations both in Glendale, Phoenix and various places in between. 

Mayorkas tapped Scott Brown, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agent in Charge, as the federal coordinator for the event. 

The federal, state and local security response for Superbowl LVII  includes:

  • 1,200 sworn officers from the Arizona Department of Public Safety
  • 2,600 sworn officers from the Phoenix Police Department
  • 600 officials from DHS providing a variety of support resources  * 117 bomb technicians and 104 additional explosive canine handlers
  • Officers from tribal police

CBP provides aviation security, video surveillance capabilities and non-intrusive inspection of vehicles and cargo. CBP officers also scan cargo entering the stadium for contraband such as narcotics, weapons, and explosives. Nearly every piece of merchandise that comes into venues, and watches for counterfeit merchandise and tickets. 

The DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate, in partnership with Arizona state and local agencies, developed toxic chemical release scenarios and analyzed the potential public health impact associated with those scenarios. Other federal agencies on board include the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard. 

Authorities increased security on the region’s light rail service with posted and roving officers in coordination with the Phoenix Police Transit Unit and TSA. Bomb-sniffing dogs have been making the rounds at the stadium with their handlers for several days, and sniper nests have been placed at undisclosed locations. 

The nerve center of security operations for the Super Bowl is the Emergency Operations Center deep inside the stadium. 

Representatives from the NFL, DHS, intelligence analysts from FBI and various law enforcement agencies use the center to monitor thousands of cameras in place inside, outside and around the stadium. They field tips and guide a swift, aggressive response to any reported threats requiring a response. 

While the feds say no specific threats have been cited against the Super Bowl or PGA tournament, “we have already gotten several tips and calls from people who are observing different things,” Lanier says. “So I think in general the public is very in tune to what the ‘See something, Say Something’ campaign means for all of us. We are getting some tips in and every tip that comes in is followed to the very end.” 

One new rule announced by NFL officials for Super Bowl LVII is a “no-drone zone” through Feb. 12 for a 30-mile radius around State Farm Stadium. Lanier said the FBI, FAA and CBP will be enforcing the rule. 

Phillips says drones have been an issue in Chicago and Cleveland worked. There can be innocent problems like a drone that was being flown by a White Sox player that hit a scoreboard and almost struck a fan before the game. 

But panic can be one of the worst weapons a bad actor can conjure up with a drone. “What if you came in with 100 drones with a quarter stick of dynamite? The actual dynamite's not going to kill that many people, if any, but you know what is going to cause deaths? A stampede out of there,” Phillips says. 

Boots on the Ground

The task of assembling a private security team to operate the Super Bowl is also more intense than a regular-season NFL game, Phillips notes. 

"They are going to run a background check on everyone. They’re going to do everybody's fingerprints, and they’re getting every single person checked off prior to allowing them to work,” Phillips explains. “If your people are good and your company did a great job, there shouldn't be a problem because they should have already done this. But that's not always the case.” 

In addition to law enforcement, there are numerous other private security personnel at the Super Bowl that have their own roles to fulfill. 

Mark Petito, a consultant for Aecon Global Security Consultants, has worked as an event security and production security manager for Fox, handling three Super Bowls as part of the Fox broadcast team and in other roles when it wasn’t Fox’s broadcast year for the game. 

When Fox was broadcasting, he helped coordinate security for the broadcast team, the pre- and post-game show and the sideline reporters. Any personnel or contracted hires he uses must go through NFL background checks months before the game. 

“That causes some difficulties for us, obviously, because sometimes you don't know who you're going to get or who's able to work until the last minute,” Petito says. 

In some instances, clients such as celebrities or broadcast talent may request special access and they want their security to be on site with them, “and the NFL doesn’t play that game,” Petito notes, especially if their client isn’t a government official or part of the game. 

“They're going to give you just enough access for you to get your asset or your talent to where they need to be, when they need to be there. And that's it. And once that’s done, your access is now going to be limited. 

“The earlier you go to the NFL with something, with a plan, with your approach, the more likely they are to say yes. The later in the game you are, the less likely they are to include you because they plan this thing a couple years in advance.” 

Using the Tools

While the threats against SEAR-1 events like the Super Bowl have evolved, so has the technology security experts can utilize to neutralize or respond to them, Petito notes. 

Advanced pass-through weapons detection systems, such of those from Evolv, are supplanting magnetometers and metal detectors in many cases. Petito says the technology typically reduces human error and improves efficiency because it can be trained to rule out objects like cell phones. 

“NFL stadiums and your major theme parks all have these advanced walkthrough systems,” Petito says. “And it’s not just technology, but how we approach security now. You'll have plain-clothes operatives running around the venue, outside the screening areas, looking for people hiding things or plotting things. 

“And obviously the camera systems are very advanced. It won’t be cameras just rolling into a feed – they’re going to be actively watched by somebody. If something happens at the stadium, they're going to see it real time.” 

Watching Social

While social media has been around a long time, Brian Schofield, founder of Aecon Global Security Consultants, says it’s still an important way to gather protective intelligence for the Super Bowl.

Schofield has overseen work in this area at corporate facilities for Sony Pictures and NBC Universal and knows that procedures for protective intelligence for the Super Bowl through social media monitoring go up well in advance. 

“The NFL has their known bad actors and the various law enforcement agencies also have their known actors. The FBI will have theirs as well,” Schofield says. “The NFL is looking for bad actors from a terrorist perspective – finding people who want to take advantage of the Super Bowl as a place to push out their message. 

“So in general, social media monitoring is a very critical part of the protection plan -- not just the Super Bowl, but for any large-scale event.” 

John Dobberstein is managing editor of and oversees all content creation for the website. Dobberstein continues a 34-year decorated journalism career that has included stops at a variety of newspapers and B2B magazines. 

(Mike Stocker / South Florida Sun Sentinel)
While mitigating attacks against high-profile public events has taken precedent in the U.S. in the wake of 9/11, the Super Bowl has long been a premier terror target.